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"The War for Late Night" reveals Disney's role in the Leno / O'Brien debacle

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"The War for Late Night" reveals Disney's role in the Leno / O'Brien debacle

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It's now considered one of the great PR disasters of 2010. The way that NBC totally mismanaged its Jay Leno / Conan O'Brien situation. Which ultimately resulted in Conan bolting for TBS, a significantly battered & bruised Jay resuming his duties as host of "The Tonight Show" in March, and Jeff Zucker - the president and CEO of NBC Universal - announcing that he would step down as head of the Peacock Network once Comcast completes its takeover of NBC.

But as it turns out, Mickey had a hand in all this mayhem. As Bill Carter reveals in his excellent new book, "The War for Late Night: When Leno Went Early and Television Went Crazy" (Viking Adult, November 2010), it was ABC that actually got the ball rolling here. When ...

Copyright 2010 Viking Press. All rights reserved

... In 2002 ABC's entertainment  division had pulled an end run around the news division, secretly seeking to replace Nightline by courting (David) Letterman with promises and birthday cakes as the CBS late-night star's contract neared an end. The talks had gotten serious by the time The New York Times broke the story of the negotiations, and the news division, poleaxed, released an anguished cry of betrayal. Although ABC didn't back off, Letterman soon did, thanking ABC for its interest but resigning with CBS after some timely last-minute concessions by that network's boss, Leslie Moonves.

Now jump ahead to 2004. After ABC had actually finally gotten into the late night talk show game by giving comedian Jimmy Kimmel a post-"Nightline" talk show. Which is when executives at the Alphabet Network learned that Conan O'Brien could potentially be up for grabs in 2005. Which is when Jeff Ross, executive producer of "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" was asked to go to  lunch with Andrea Wong, an executive who was in charge of reality shows and late night for ABC.

[Jeff, who was one of Conan's closest advisers] were unsure how serious this initial ABC approach really might be until, soon after meeting with Wong, Ross got a call from Bob Iger, then number two at ABC's parent, the Disney Company (and previously an ABC executive, including president of entertainment). Jeff knew Iger a bit from socializing in New York in earlier days, so they were comfortable with each other. Iger's message was simple and direct: "This is for real."

Bob Iger, CEO of The Walt Disney Company
Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.
All rights reserved

Mind you, it was ABC & Fox's dogged pursuit of Conan that ultimately forced NBC to come up with some sort of deal that would placate O'Brien, that would keep Conan from signing with the competition. The arrangement that NBC execs eventually came up had Jay Leno stepping down as host of "The Tonight Show" in 2009 and O'Brien then assuming control of this late night institution.

And - on paper, anyway - this idea made great business sense. Leno's audience had begun to grey. So - by replacing Jay with Conan in 2009 - this would then virtually guarantee that "The Tonight Show" inherited the  "Late Night with Conan O'Brien" 's younger, hipper audience. Which was a far more desirable demographic, at least as far as NBC's advertisers were concerned.

But what this network's executives hadn't counted on was - by the time 2008 rolled around - Jay would still be going strong. What's more, given his famous workhorse work ethic, Leno was actively looking for yet another gig in the late night arena which he could then transition to once his days as host of "The Tonight Show" were over. Which is where ABC entered the equation again.

Jay Leno interviews Miley Cyrus during her 2008 appearance on "The Tonight
Show." Copyright NBC Universal. All rights reserved

As Carter explains, while ...

ABC still had its Nightline issue, but the network shown its hand in 2002 when it chased Letterman. For the right talent the 11:35 hour would be offered up, no matter how loudly the news division might howl at the moon (and the press). Leno was clearly the right talent. It went beyond a no-brainer, the Disney shareholders would have a right to sue them for malfeasance. Bob Iger, who had been named chief executive of Disney in 2005, personally took charge of supervising the Leno courtship, with help from Anne Sweeney, the top ABC corporate executive, and Steven McPherson, the head of entertainment.

And then NBC got wind of ABC's overtures to Jay. Which concerned these network executives so much that they commissioned surveys to determine what impact (if any) a late-night-with-Jay-on-ABC show might have on a "Tonight Show" that now had Conan O'Brien as its host. And the news was not good:

Jeff Zucker, president and CEO of NBC Universal
Copyright NBC Universal. All rights reserved

By almost every external evaluation in 2008, a Jay Leno at ABC figured to more than dent NBC; it looked like he would T-bone them like one of his Duesenbergs ramming a Mini Cooper.

NBC's own research department had come up with much the same results. At ABC, Jay would do very well, and probably win.

If Jay (took) up residence at ABC ... money would surely follow him. Zucker had already received estimates from (his) network's research and sales department of what a Jay-at-ABC outcome would mean: NBC would take a monetary pasting.

Copyright NBC Universal. All rights reserved

And Zucker just couldn't stand for that. Which is why - in the Spring of 2008 - Jeff flew out to LA and then pitched Jay on his "Leno at 10 p.m." idea. Which - as it turns out - wasn't even all that new an idea.

As Carter recounts in "The War for Late Night" :

What Zucker meant to propose that spring was actually a relic from his trunkful of unused notions. As early as 2002 Zucker had stood on the sidelines of Letterman's negotiations for a new contract, looking for an opportunity to spring if Dave showed the slightest sign of being willing to bolt CBS. When he did, with ABC entering the picture, Zucker leapt into back-channel action and logged in a call to Rob Burnett at Letterman's shop.

Johnny Depp during his recent appearance on "Late Night with David
Copyright CBS Entertainment. All rights reserved

Zucker pitched an intriguing concept for Dave to NBC - only not in late night. What Zucker proposed for Dave was an hour each night in prime time, at eight p.m. (except for Thursday, because in 2002, NBC still had the hit Friends there). The plan had several beautiful angles for Zucker. Besides removing Letterman at a late-night competitor, it would address what had become one of Zucker's bêtes noires since taking over the entertainment side of NBC, the network's chronic issue with finding eight p.m. shows. Friends, he had to admit, had little life left, and after that it was a lot of questions for NBC at eight.

Mind you, Jay had no idea that Jeff's "Leno at 10 p.m." concept was actually just a recycling of Zucker's failed "Letterman at 8 p.m." idea. Staying with the Peacock Network appealed to Leno. Which is why - even though ABC had already cleared the way for Jay at 11:35 (which involved cancelling Nightline outright and then pushing "The Jimmy Kimmel Show" back to 12:35 p.m.) - he decided to go with this new NBC deal instead.

(So) Jay called Bob Iger at Disney ... describing how deeply he had appreciated the interest, how impressed he was with ABC's proposal, and how close he had come to accepting. But in the end, NBC had come up with something that he felt he could not turn down: ten p.m. each weeknight.

Copyright NBC Universal. All rights reserved

Iger took the news equably: in truth, he wasn't all that disappointed. Switching networks was always a crapshoot. Maybe Jay wouldn't have provided a surefire windfall, and at least he didn't have to face an immediate confrontation with the ABC news division over Nightline.

There are all sorts of great stories just  like this in "The War for Late Night." Which is why - if you're looking to learn more about what actually went on behind-the-scenes at NBC Universal earlier this year - then I urge you to pick up a copy of Bill Carter's new book. Which is a worthy follow-up to his earlier late night expose, "The Late Shift: Letterman, Leno, and the Network Battle for the Night" (Hyperion, April 1995).

Copyright 1995 Hyperion. All rights reserved

But that said, I still have to wonder: Would any of this Conan-replaces-Jay-as-host-of-"The-Tonight-Show" and/or Leno-forces-O'Brien-out nonsense have ever occurred if the Mouse hadn't mucked things up for the Peacock? If Disney hadn't pursued Letterman, Leno and O'Brien in its effort to turn ABC into a real player in the late night talk show game?

Your thoughts?


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  • Hmm... no article on Tron's disappointing second weekend at the box-office?

  • Thank you for making this available and offering it to all the World!

    I also embedded this on my personal web site, OUR ETERNAL STRUGGLE, so more folks can enjoy it and share it.

    One of my fondest memories is of spending a weekend at Disneyland when I returned from the Viet Nam War.

    Happy New Year!!!

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  • Thank you for making this available and offering it to all the World!

  • Tribunal --

    Sorry about the no TRON-box-office article today. But we're kind of in the middle of a blizzard here Back East. And what with the power continuing to cut in & out (as well as regularly having to go outside and shovel), it was hard for me to pull together all of the necessary box office data yesterday as well as take the time to really drill down into those numbers. Get a sense of where "TRON: Legacy" 's ticket sales are strongest (i.e. 3D IMAX sales versus Real 3D, etc).

    But from what I hear, this Joseph Kosinski film is expected to finally blow through the $100 million domestic barrier on Tuesday. Wednesday at the latest. Which is (admittedly) not the sort of blockbuster pace that Disney execs were hoping for when they initially greenlit this project back in 2008. But in a holiday season that has seen some true disasters (see last weekend's "How Do You Know" and this weekend's "Gulliver's Travels"), the fact that "TRON: Legacy" looks to be a slow but steady earner and will most likely top out in the U.S. market at somewhere between $125 - $150 million ... Well, that's got to be disappointing news for folks at the Studio. Who were really hoping that this "TRON" reboot would turn out to be another box office phenomenon. Something along the lines of Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" and "Toy Story 3."

    Anyway, Tribunal ... Given that we're still in the middle of this storm (the snow's not expected to stop falling 'til sometime this afternoon. And digging the house out looks to a multi-hour project), can I please revisit this topic later in the week? When I've finally got all of "TRON: Legacy"'s real 2nd-weekend-in-release numbers?

    UPDATE: As I was typing this, I actually got a note from someone at the Studio who suggests that "TRON: Legacy" 's box numbers were off for this past weekend (particularly in the mid-Atlantic states and on the East Coast) BECAUSE of the blizzard. Why is they're suggesting that it's not wise to pass judgment on this Joseph Kosinski film 'til after New Year's and the Studio can then tally all of "TRON: Legacy" 's Christmas week business.

    I don't know if I necessarily buy into that spin. But maybe that is what we should actually do here. Wait 'til January 3 or 4 to do my "TRON: Legacy" follow-up article. Would something like that work for you, Tribunal? At the very least, I think that I'll finally be done shoveling us out by then and can then officially get back to writing.

    So let me know, okay?


  • Jim, I guess we can wait forTron...just don't throw out your back clearing all that snow, then we'll never get the story!

  • Thanks for the response Jim, and sorry for the off-topic comment but I was really interested on Disney's thoughts and you've pretty much been covering this film since day one.

    And January sounds like a good time for the next article, hopefully you talk about it on the podcast as well.

  • Anybody else see the connection between Jeff Zucker and Michael Eisner as two CEOs who had their days in the sun but stayed waaaaaaay too long at the fair?

  • Yeah, there are definitely similarities between Eisner and Zucker.  At one point, they were both young, eager, rising stars but eventually lost their way and overstayed their welcome.  Egos certainly got in their way, and after many smaller missteps and public relations disasters they quietly stepped down.

  • I think the caption for the Miley picture is incorrect. It says 2008 but it looks like Jay's 2010 desk.

  • this blog is very Nice blog and very usefull to our thankssss

  • There are certainly similarities between Eisner and Zucker. At one point, they were both young, eager, increasing the Stars, but eventually lost their way and force their welcome. Ego definitely on their way, and a much smaller missteps and public relations disaster, which left quietly.

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